FRISCO — For a few moments, The Star’s Ford Center in Frisco was silent.
Eastwood High School football players and their Plano Senior counterparts stood side by side as they remembered those killed in a rampage at an El Paso Walmart on Aug. 3.
The students, standing near the famous Dallas Cowboys blue star in midfield, paid their respects. Some lower their heads and stare at the ground. Others placed a hand over their heart.
Earlier, they had joined in midfield.
“We’re going to play hard,” Eastwood coach Julio Lopez told students from both teams as Plano Senior High coach Jaydon McCullough stood by his side. “We’re going to compete, we’re going to get through this. But I want you to know that we’re your brothers too. We love you guys. We’re strong in Texas.
“We are going to use football to show the world what is so good about our sport.”
Thursday’s game was more than a football game. Many have presented the game as a chance for two communities linked by the mass shooting in El Paso to come together.
Continued: ‘An opportunity to unite’: Eastwood, Plano game will offer communities a chance to heal
The 21-year-old white shooter charged with capital murder in connection with the shooting graduated from Plano Senior in 2017. The man told authorities he traveled to El Paso from the Dallas suburb of Allen where he lived and that he was targeting Mexicans in the attack.
The game was initially canceled by Plano headmasters in the days following the Walmart shooting citing safety concerns. After garnering national attention and widespread criticism, it was rescheduled for another night at Frisco Indoor Stadium, which is the Dallas Cowboys’ practice facility.
“When all of this first happened, I was a bit against playing the next two years, but I think it’s okay,” Lopez said after the game. “We’ll come back to the conversation later, but I couldn’t be happier with how both parties represented each other, and I hope we did it justice.”
The final score of the game was 43-28, with Plano Senior winning, but the final score meant little.
“Sometimes a score isn’t indicative of the type of kids you have,” Lopez said. “Sometimes a win or a loss doesn’t tell if you really won that night.”
Eastwood fans filled much of the stands, cheering on the Troopers. They wore “El Paso Strong” and “Texas Strong” t-shirts. Some had signs supporting the team that traveled across the state to represent El Paso.
Crescendos from the school band filled the indoor stadium, where the Dallas Cowboys train. The stadium is where the match was moved to after it was cancelled.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones even greeted the players as they arrived.
Also on the minds of the Troopers during the moment of silence and play was former player Eddie Cruz who died in a drowning accident over Labor Day weekend. His jersey was with them on Thursday.
Eastwood quarterback Christian Castaneda said he was thinking of his friend.
“I felt it there with us then,” he said. “I couldn’t do anything but cry because I miss him, I love him. He’s my brother and I’m going to do everything on this pitch for him because that’s what he loved to do. “
before the game
The Troopers arrived in North Texas on Wednesday morning after traveling hundreds of miles overnight in a bus. They prepared for the game during the day by practicing at Plano West High School.
Indoors, players played on Kelly’s green turf in preparation for Thursday’s event.
At the end of the practice, which took place in an indoor school field, teammates gathered around Lopez, their head coach, some kneeling and others standing in the back of the semi-circle formation.
Lopez pointed out to them the opportunity to play on such a big stage. He said the game was a chance to play for El Paso and put the city “on the map.”
He told them to breathe deeply and remember to have fun and enjoy the experience.
“Go out with a purpose,” Lopez said. “We have a lot to play for. We have a lot to represent, but that doesn’t mean you have to let it consume you. Go out and be yourself.”
Eastwood alumni react
Joey Uptergrove fought back tears as he tried to find words to describe what Thursday’s football game between Eastwood High School and Plano Senior was like.
The Eastwood graduate who now lives in Denton stood in the back hall of a Dallas arcade on the eve of Thursday’s game. He and other Eastwood graduates from the Dallas-Fort Worth area hosted the players for a pizza dinner before Thursday’s game.
“Go Troop!” applauded Donna Osterman, a 1978 Eastwood graduate who lives in Addison, Texas.
In the main halls, Eastwood football players tested their video game skills on arcade games such as Pac-Man and Space Invaders.
The noise of machinery, deafening music and the teenager’s words could be heard in the background as Uptergrove spoke. He told how the game between the two schools was canceled for security reasons and then reinstated.
“That’s not who we are in El Paso,” Uptergrove said. “We kiss. We love each other.”
He said the game would show the Dallas area “how good the people are” in El Paso.
“This is my home,” Uptergrove said of El Paso. “And for that to happen, it was very emotional.”
Uptergrove said he was outraged when the first news came that the game was cancelled. He said it wasn’t fair to the boys or their parents who wanted to come to North Texas to show that the two schools were coming together.
“In a way, it was like letting the shooter win,” Uptergrove said.
Cecilia McAfee, an Eastwood graduate who lives in Frisco, told him that gambling is about perseverance.
“Because you can overcome,” she said. “You are knocked down, you are injured and you get up right away.”
“We are all one community”
Eastwood Student Council President Paloma Palmer traveled with other council members, the band, the drill team, and the cheer squad for the game. They left at 2:30 a.m. to play the game.
Palmer marveled at the spirit in the stadium.
She said she and her friends discussed the shock that something like the shooting in El Paso could happen in their community.
“After seeing that he was a white supremacist, it really made us think, ‘Why would anyone even want to do that? ‘” Palmer said. “I just feel sadness for the community.”
Palmer said the game was a chance for cities to unite around football.
Rachel Anguiano and David Grajeda drove all night from El Paso to Frisco to watch their son – number 74, nicknamed “Big Jon” – perform.
“We have little sleep,” Grajeda joked.
But even with little rest, their morale was high. They sat in the front row of the stands to watch their son and cheer on the Troopers. They had a sign that said “Trooper Nation El Paso Strong”.
“It shows the unity between the two places,” Anguiano said. “Nothing will stop us from moving forward, and they’re showing us their support for what’s happened, which I think is an incredible gesture on their part.”
Anquiano interrupted his thinking to cheer on the Eastwood side as they returned to the pitch to signal the end of half-time.
“This game means a lot,” she continued.
Grajeda said he had several hours to burn in Frisco before the game started and felt welcomed by the people there.
“They treated us with respect and opened their doors and everything,” he said. “We are united. It’s a good feeling.”
It was so important to the parents that they were there, that they made the trip knowing they were going to turn around and head back across the state when the game was over.
But the long drive to Anguiano is worth it.
“We support this team, this school 100%,” she said.
El Paso representative Cesar Blanco was also among those watching the game. The Eastwood graduate said he wasn’t surprised to see so many people from El Paso there to support the team.
“The thrill of the game, the band, the Trooperettes, the energy in the stands, it’s just awesome,” he said. “It’s a great way for our community to heal.”
At a reception earlier in the night, Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere and El Paso Mayor Dee Margo swapped shirts.
“I feel like there’s no better way to bring people together in Texas than through a high school football game,” he said.
Jaime Matta, a senior from Eastwood, said he’s proud of how El Paso has come together after everything the city has been through.
“We are still strong from El Paso and we will always be strong from El Paso,” the student council member said.
In front of El Paso, booths full of Plano Senior fans were seated. Students Zoey Helms and Andrea Medina were among those who decided to attend. Both agreed that there was a community atmosphere in the stadium.
“I felt more attached and more connected to this game than any other game because of what happened and who we were playing against,” said Medina, a junior.
After the game, standing on the grass, Plano player Anthony Reese approached an Eastwood player for a hug. He had a message for those in El Paso:
“We are all praying for you,” Reese said. “We are all one community. We all support each other, and that’s what this football game meant to me.”
Eleanor Dearman covers the Texas Capitol and politics for the USA TODAY Network Austin Bureau and the El Paso Times. She can be reached at 361-244-0047; [email protected]; @EllyDearman on Twitter.